In the midst of Texas’ worst drought since the 1950s “drought of record,” we face serious issues regarding water consumption and waste, water rights, and how conservation efforts can be integrated into public policy. Texas’ population is projected to double by 2060. So how can we sustainably plan to serve the water needs of an estimated 52 million people by then? Water conservation, management strategies, and planning were the top environmental issues put on the table during the 83rd Texas Legislative Session.
Several water conservation bills were passed into law this session. HB 4, introduced by Rep. Allan Ritter (R-Nederland), marked the most significant and impactful among those he signed. The bill allocates $2 billion toward a new State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT) from the state’s “Rainy Day Fund,” pending voter approval in the November 5th election. If approved, SWIFT will be used to fund water-related projects, infrastructure, and conservation projects with loans. The bill requires that 20% of funding go toward conservation and re-use, with another 10% toward agricultural water projects.
Three bills passed that will address the problem of wasted water. HB 857, by Rep. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville), requires water utilities to conduct annual water loss audits. HB 1461, from Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen), requires customer notification of audit results. Rep. Lon Burnam’s (D-Fort Worth) HB 3605 requires utilities to use a portion of state financial assistance funds to repair municipal water main leaks, which would save an estimated 20 billion gallons annually.
Austin’s Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson got his SB 198 signed into law as well. It makes it illegal for homeowners associations to prohibit members from utilizing xeriscaping and drought-resistant landscaping. Watson noted that residential lawns are commonly made up of St. Augustine and Kentucky bluegrass, both of which require extensive watering. This is a significant problem in arid regions like west Texas. It takes much less water to grow native plants like yuccas, creosote, and Texas sagebrush, all of which are favorable for lawn aesthetics. An increase in drought-tolerant plants as opposed to traditional lawn grasses could save 14 billion gallons of water by 2020.
Other water-related bills signed into law include SB 385, 654, 700, and 1870. SB 385 created the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, which authorizes collaboration amongst municipalities, counties, commercial lenders, and landowners to develop improvement projects that will reduce water and energy consumption. SB 654 gives municipalities the power to enforce water ordinances through civil action instead of filing criminal lawsuits. SB 700 requires that the State Energy Conservation Office (SECO) draft a template for state agencies to use in developing comprehensive water management and conservation plans, which they must annually update. It also requires SECO to biennially submit a progress report to the Governor and publish it on their website. Finally, SB 1870 created the West Fort Bend Water Authority and outlined its powers.